There are any number of reasons why a city, town, or even an entire empire goes from thriving to nonexistent: climate change, urban development, and war are just a few of them. For Wade Davis – an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has spent decades traveling the world and immersing himself in indigenous cultures to learn about everything from hallucinogenics to zombies – the answer is simpler than that: "You know the old expression, 'If you don't study history you're doomed to repeat it,'" says Davis. "Undoubtedly, when Pachacuti built Machu Picchu, he had no idea that within less than a century, the convulsion of the Conquest would flood upon him."
From the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to a tumbleweed-ridden ghost town in Death Valley, the element of surprise is a recurring theme in the abandonment of a town-turned-tourist destination. And whether a place is taken out by enemy forces or Mother Nature, the lesson in visiting any abandoned city, according to Davis, is "to realize the ephemeral nature of power." Including our own.
"The Roman Empire lasted for five centuries," says Davis. "Five centuries ago, people hadn't even come to America. We look back and say, 'Well the Mayans weren't quite as big as they thought they were.' By the same token, the global civilization that we have – based on hydrocarbons, if you will – could be snuffed out just as the Incas, the Mayans, the Egyptians and every other empire." Consider yourself warned.
Like Kolmanskop, the failed promise of wealth led to the downfall of Rhyolite, Nevada. Founded in 1904 near Death Valley National Park, the promise of gold served as a great temptation for early investors like Charles Schwab, who sank a ton of cash into developing the town (which he purchased in 1906) as a cultural center. By 1907, Rhyolite had its own school, a hospital, a stock exchange, hotels, shops, two electric plants, and even a symphony. But within a few years it became clear that there was no gold, and so the town became more popular as a western movie set.
Getting there: Rhyolite is part of Death Valley National Park, which is open daily year-round.
Credit: Alice Cahill / Getty Images